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Facing cuts, many plea for county funds

It was a packed meeting room Monday evening when 23 residents took turns commenting on fee increases and spending cuts proposed in the 2013-14 Halifax County budget totaling $88,716,327.

The balanced budget draft includes no raises for county employees and is $510,886 less than the current year’s budget.

Supervisors advertised a 2 cents increase in real estate property taxes offering them flexibility to raise the current 45-cent rate per $100 assessed value to 47 cents.

Should supervisors vote to raise the real estate tax rate, each additional penny increase would generate an additional $359,000 in income.

All other tax rates are advertised to remain the same with personal property remaining at $3.60 and machinery and tools tax remaining at $1.26.

In the proposed balanced budget, most departments’ operational budgets remained level with or less than the current year’s funding.

Health insurance costs are anticipated to increase by $170,000 and are included in the staff recommended budget, but no across the board pay hikes are included for county employees in the coming year.

In order to balance the budget that originally had a $5.2 million deficit, staff recommended making cuts and increasing a number of fees.

Among the almost two dozen speakers Monday were 12 agency and department representatives pleading their case to have requested funding reinstated for their respective organizations. These organizations offer a diverse range of services including the county tourism department, Longwood Small Business Center, the local library system, Department of Social Services, the Prizery, museum, school system and RC&D.

Tourism Director Linda Shepperd spoke first asking supervisors to restore $14,697 cut from her departmental request of $120,817. The proposed budget includes $106,120 that represents 60 percent of the county’s transient occupancy tax dedicated to tourism. In 2012 that tax brought in $176,867 to the county, so staff had recommended 60 percent, or $120,817, be placed in the tourism budget.

Larry Harris of the Longwood Small Business Center asked for reinstatement of $10,738 cut from that agency’s proposed budget explaining the loss of local funding could jeopardize matching funding the federal Small Business Administration gives to the center. Losing the $10,738 could result in a $21,000 reduction in that department’s overall budget, he told supervisors.

The Longwood Small Business Center assisted 90 clients in 2012, and 59 were from Halifax County, he said.

Library Director Joe Zappacosta sought reinstatement of $17,000 cut from the library’s requested $192,000 budget. Instead, staff is recommending supervisors approve $175,000, the same amount as in the current budget.

Preparing for a difficult financial year, the director said library board members are considering various fundraising events and looking for additional ways to cut costs.

“We can’t continue without your support. With limited funds, we may have to reduce hours and cut back on library services provided,” he concluded.

County Department of Social Services Director Kathy Andrews asked for $64,777 in additional funding to give the department’s 55 employees a 3 percent raise effective in August.

The last time the employees received any type of cost of living raise was in 2008. At that time, the department had 64 employees.

Over the past five years, caseloads have increased and the number of employees has decreased, she pointed out.

Based on the 2010 census, the county had 14,650 households. Of these, 6,433 were receiving Medicaid in some form or another.

Also seeking additional funding for the Department of Social Services was Joe Gasperini who told supervisors if the county cuts requested funding, services will be curtailed and in the long run it will end up costing the county more to provide these services.

Barbara Speece and Boo Evans, president and vice president of The Prizery, each asked supervisors to fund $75,000 for the performing arts center in the coming year.

The county has not contributed to The Prizery in previous years but did loan the organization $60,000 during its restructuring. The Prizery also has asked the county to forgive this loan, but loan forgiveness is not included in the proposed budget.

Speece made the case for support explaining The Prizery has provided use of its facility to pre-K 4-year-old students and talented and gifted students at no charge exposing youngsters to music, dance and art that research has proven to improve test scores in later years.

Evans told supervisors The Prizery needs the county’s support to enhance the quality of life for its residents.

“I for one can’t imagine living in Halifax County without The Prizery,” Evans added.

Museum Director Beth Coates sought reinstatement of $10,389 in community contributions to the Halifax County/South Boston Museum.

She listed the many programs the museum has brought to the area to broaden the horizon of children and area residents as well as its ongoing efforts to preserve the county’s heritage and history.

“The museum truly needs your support to be able to continue to serve the citizens of Halifax County. Without these funds, I am truly unsure of the future of the museum,” she said.

When Prizery representatives and the museum director asked those attending in support of both organizations to stand and be recognized, approximately two dozen stood.

County School Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon recognized school board members attending Monday night’s hearing and introduced Vice-Chairman R. K. “Dick” Stoneman who asked supervisors to consider giving $250,000 from the meals tax back to the schools.

The school board voted earlier this month to give all its employees 2 percent raises, Stoneman said. 

“We’re losing good teachers because surrounding counties are paying higher salaries for teachers. To recruit good teachers we’ve got to be competitive in salaries,” he added.

He reminded supervisors one of the selling points of the meals tax was funding would go to the school system.

“We know you do not have the money at this time, but if and when you get this $250,000, we ask you to strongly consider the Halifax County School Board,” Stoneman concluded.

Dr. Roger Long, a school board member representing ED-5, spoke as a citizen Monday pointing out the state ranks eighth in wealth in the United States but 38th in its effort for education.

He referred to the 47 cents real estate tax rate proposed saying, the county ranks close to the bottom when comparing its low tax rate to other counties.

He said of the Virginia Lottery’s $28 million this year, only $3 million went to education with the rest going into the state’s general fund.

He also referred to a number of unfunded state mandates for which localities are being asked to absorb the costs.

Carlyle Wimbish who represents the county on the RC&D Council asked supervisors to restore the $3,200 in dues not currently included in the proposed budget to allow him to continue serving on the 10-county organization.

Shannon Sutton, supported by Rodney Francisco, both E-911 dispatchers, asked supervisors to consider reinstating funds to provide a 5 percent salary increase originally included in that department’s request.

Sutton explained all dispatchers are now trained to provide life-saving instructions to persons calling into their office in emergency situations.

“We have not had a raise in quite a while. Before long I feel like we’ll be paying you to work,” she told supervisors.

In addition to the agency and department representatives seeking reinstatement of funds, 10 citizens asked supervisors to be mindful of persons living on fixed incomes by not increasing a variety of suggested fees.

Thomas Hines of Nathalie, making his annual appearance at the budget hearing, said he had been coming for 30 to 40 years and “never has asked for one dime.”

He urged supervisors to make every dollar stretch as far as they can and cautioned that raising the fee on dog tags would result in fewer people purchasing them which will lead to more strays animal control will be called to pick up.

“I don’t want no charity. All I’m asking you to do is let me keep my little money and go as far as I can go,” he said.

Cheryl Watts of Halifax commended the board for seeking ways such as increasing user fees to balance the budget instead of raising the real estate tax rate.

She suggested supervisors seek ways to raise the sales tax rate like the General Assembly did in some of the larger cities as part of the transportation plan.

Josephine Scearce of Halifax reminded supervisors she lives on a fixed income and can’t afford any increases in fees or taxes.

“We need jobs in Halifax County,” she said, adding, the lack of jobs is “why you see all that menace going on.”

Weldon Anderson of Nathalie said although taxes may not be increasing, he “got a tax increase” by all the fees increasing.

Bernard Mitzler of Nathalie suggested supervisors raise fees on dog tags only for dogs who are not spayed or neutered.

He also urged the schools to follow the efficiency study recommendations and close two schools to save the county money.

“Closing schools doesn’t kill nothing. Let’s get lean and mean,” Mitzler said.

Hampton Hazelwood of Scottsburg said he hated to see supervisors raise all the fees that are proposed for increase.

“I was hoping the meals tax and tax on the garbage would help some, but evidently, it’s getting worse,” he said.

Billy Hanks and Donnie Hudson, who both own small vending machines, questioned whether the increase in vendors’ fees would apply to their business and urged supervisors to keep that fee at $20 so that small vendors can stay in business.

Both agreed they were small operators and the increase to $100 would put them out of business.

Kent Mills, a self-described “outsider” who recently moved from Albemarle County back to Halifax County, questioned how the county has operated without increasing fees before now.

However, he did question the 900 percent increase in the peddlar fee and 500 percent increase in the fortune-teller fee saying, “It doesn’t match what you did with the rest.”

Billy Carson of Scottsburg asked the supervisors to use the county money as they would a personal checkbook. “First, collect all delinquent taxes…if they owe us money, they need to pay up,” he said. 

He also suggested the board “stop wasting money on things like a fairgrounds study” and “stop giving money to the IDA.”

After closing the public hearing, supervisors discussed the ongoing collection of delinquent taxes with Treasurer Linda Foster and questioned Commissioner of Revenue Brenda Powell whether the vendor fee increase would apply to small vendor company owners.

Powell explained “to her knowledge” the $100 fee would apply only to amusement machines.

“There’s no fee on individual vending machines,” Powell added.

Treasurer Foster informed supervisors a county land sale is slated on 32 tracts of land April 6.

Originally the sale had been scheduled for 66 tracts owing overdue taxes, however, the attorney has collected payments of $136,000 with two more totaling $40,000 being paid this week.

She anticipated the county would receives an additional $100,000 if the sales go through by June or July.

According to Foster, $4.1 million in delinquent taxes date back to 1992 with $1.83 million of the $4.1 million being overdue from unpaid 2012 taxes.

Currently, attorneys conduct two sales per year in the county on delinquent tax properties.

Before adjourning the work session, supervisors agreed the finance committee should meet again before April 1 and bring recommendations back to the board on what fees, if any, should not be raised.

The finance committee will meet at 3 p.m. Thursday in Halifax.

Supervisors plan to set the tax rates and approve the local school funding allocation and increases to fees at its April 1 meeting.